From severe heat waves to extreme rainfall—the threats of climate change are becoming more palpable and slowly seeping into our collective consciousness.
If one has to visit the city of Bhopal, a drive on the famous VIP road along the banks of Bada Talab (Upper Lake) is a must. However, if you are driving along the road on a Friday, you will be met with an unusual sight. A 14-year-old girl, her hair tied in a loose ponytail and a stern look on her face, is likely to be standing on the footpath, holding a cardboard banner that reads ‘Climate Strike’.
For the past 20 weeks, Friday is the designated ‘Day of Revolution’ for Garima Thakur. Inspired by the teenage Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, Garima is joined by thousands of other school children and teenagers across the world in an international campaign called ‘Fridays for Future’. In practice, the campaign calls on the governments to let go off a laissez-faire attitude towards climate change, but in spirit, it’s a collective plea for a fighting chance by the generation most susceptible to its consequences. So when Thunberg unabashedly addressed an audience of adult diplomats at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, a strange irony permeated the room. “Our house is on fire,” she said, and just like that a 16-year-old dictated the manifesto for this century’s biggest concern: Climate Change.
Until now, the discourse about climate change was limited to the orbit of scientists, activists, and international diplomatic conferences, with only our science textbooks giving a slight peek into the phenomenon. So when we were introduced to the effects of global warming, its gravity would elude most. But in the last couple of years, the physical manifestation of what until now was a theory has become real.
In recent years, all the major natural disasters – the floods in Uttarakhand, Assam, Odisha, Kerala, Bihar, and other states, perennial droughts in parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the killer heat waves in the north, the ravaging cyclones on the east and the west coast of the subcontinent and increased instances of water shortages across the major metropolitan cities of the country — can all be attributed to climate change.
And despite the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, terming climate change a hoax, it is real and more pressing than ever, especially for India.
Climate Change – Our cultural reality
Historically, the narratives of the time have held a mirror to its socio-political-economic realities. According to Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan, the founder of the Indian chapter of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), climate change has always been a part of the literature in the subcontinent but wasn’t in the collective consciousness till now. “Literature has been talking about human culture, nature, and the transformation that humans have brought out. All those things have been written about, but they have not consciously been thrust forward. This, in fact, is a recent phenomenon,” enlightens Sivaramakrishnan.
Hence, in the contemporary batch of writers, Amitav Ghosh is among those who have consciously written about the cultural impacts of climate change. From the Jnanpith award winner’s non-fiction seminal work The Great Derangement (2016) to his fictional novels The Hungry Tide (2004) and Gun Island (2019), Ghosh has been successfully capturing the cultural annihilation caused by the irreversible phenomenon. He, himself ascribes to the idea of literature holding a mirror to the society when he says, “Climate change is the case with the entire world. Someone has to address it and I think literature can do that by telling a story.” Further Enmakaje (2004), a Malayalam novel by Ambikasuthan Mangad shows the ill effects of using endosulfan pesticide in cashew plantations of Northern Kerala. Tamil writer Ashokamitran’s Thanneer (Water) (1973) could be read as a forewarning in the writer’s exploration of the first water crisis caused in Chennai in the ’60s.
In addition to the written and the oral narrative, cinema has brought to life what climate change can manifest itself into. Whether it is in the deluge caused by melting glaciers in The Day after Tomorrow (2004), or the astronauts’ search for an alternative home in Interstellar (2014), imaginations have taken flight at how the ‘end of the world’ would be like.
Of course, in recent times, Sir David Attenborough’s gut-wrenching documentary series Our Planet (2019) is responsible for introducing this crisis as a topic on dinner tables across the globe, Indian filmmakers are also waking up to the reality of the challenges posed by it. One such revolutionary movie, and what is India’s first feature film on climate change is Kadvi Hawa (2017). Directed by Nila Madhab Panda, who won a Special Mention at National Awards for the film, Kadvi Hawa is a story of a 70-year-old blind man fighting climate change to save his son in the drought-prone Bundelkhand region of India.
Talking about his move to explore the theme, which is relatively unexplored in Hindi cinema and commercially not viable, the director says, “I come from a small village in Orissa, so when I hear the elders mentioning how the floods were not this frequent earlier, I believe those facts, since they are alluding to the monsoon 20 years ago. These observations gave me an insight into how cinema can play a big role in telling such stories.”
The Official Warning
But before our cultural reckoning, there needs to be a scientific backing. In the Paris Convention 2015, a central aim was cemented to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels in this century, and to further limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although, last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s special report on the effect of the Paris Agreement painted a grim image.
According to the report, governments across the world only have 12 years to meet their goal of net-zero carbon emissions (CO ) by 2050. The failure of which will result in an inevitable rise in temperature above 1.5 degrees Celsius that will pose high risks to ‘health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and economic growth.’ To prevent this, global carbon emissions have to be cut down by 45 percent by 2030.
As Chandra Bhushan, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), indicates we are staring at a Herculean task. “Developed countries should take more responsibilities and cut emissions quickly while developing countries like India will get a little more time to reduce their emissions. But the report is very clear that every country in the world must start moving their economy to low-carbon, India included,” he says.
But another observation in the report throws our nationalistic preoccupations outside the window. Shifting the conversation from a global concern to a critical national concern is a finding that says that India will be the worst affected by climate change.
In 2016, when Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for The Revenant (2016), the actor took to the coveted stage, with only one message for the world, “Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.” Cut to June 2019: the actor-cum-environment activist shared what climate change looks like. In a photo posted on his Instagram account, sari-clad distraught women were trying to fetch water from an empty well in Chennai, which is experiencing the worst water crisis in its history.
According to Dr. Suresh Babu, Director, Rivers, Wetland and Water Policy at WWF India, this view may soon be a reality for major cities in India. “The Composite Water Management Index Report released by the NITI Aayog in June 2018, suggested that 600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress. The report adds that 21 major cities in the country are expected to run out of groundwater in the next two years, affecting water access for 100 million people. The water crisis would lead to a 6 percent loss in the country’s GDP by 2030,” he says.
It’s clear that we are not living in the time when the effects of climate change are limited to the melting of glaciers in the remote Arctic. In just seven months into 2019, the country has witnessed two cyclones — Vayu and Fani, floods in Bihar and Assam, severe droughts and agrarian crisis in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, the sweltering heatwave in the northern parts of the country, and an ongoing water shortage crisis in metropolitan cities.
But what has made India so vulnerable in the last few years? Bhushan answers, “India’s vulnerability is rooted in its climatic system itself. We are a monsoon dependent country, and monsoon is a very delicate weather system. Any disturbance in the temperature gradient has huge implications on the monsoon. And that’s why, historically, India has had droughts and floods, even before climate change.”
Now, what aggrieves this already fragile climatic system is the emission of greenhouse gases and its core component CO. Hence, when Churu in Rajasthan recorded an all-time high temperature of 50.8 degree Celsius this year, it clearly indicates the drastic effects of climate change. The result is the decrease in rainfall and increase in its intensity. The case in point can probably be highlighted when earlier this month, the Mumbai Municipal Chief blamed climate change for the delay of monsoon by a month. The week after, Mumbai received two days of heavy rainfall resulting in the city getting half-submerged in water. “It is important to understand that we get most of our rainfall in about 100 hours. This rainfall then sustains us for the 8,760 hours that we have in a year. Any changes in the rainfall pattern has huge implications on our water systems and hence to our lives and livelihoods,” adds Bhushan.
Additionally, the other significant contributing factors are the socio-economic conditions. “We are a poor country. Vulnerability is directly linked to poverty. Poorer a country, the more vulnerable it is to the impact of climate change,” says Bhushan. The starkest illustration can be framed out of last year’s ‘Kisan Long Marches’ in Mumbai and Delhi. When thousands of drought-hit farmers and agricultural labourers demanded the government alleviate their poverty, a direct relationship between poverty and climate change got solidified in the public conscience. Professor N.H Ravindranath from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) also points at the population density. It’s like a basic maths lesson; more people, more damage. “Compared to all other countries except for Bangladesh, the population density is the highest. So any disaster on land will affect too many people in India,” he highlights.
Cause for alarm
Prof. Ravindranath is also currently heading the first national study on the impact of climate change in the country. Revealing observations from his research on the ground-level impact on the farmers, the first respondents to climate change, he says, “We used to get rainfall at the right time in June, July, August, September, and then get a full crop. Now, there is a delay in the arrival of the monsoon and hence there is a delay in sowing grains and vegetables. And there are droughts in between. In some places, you get normal rains in the wrong periods. So the wheat and rice crops ready for harvest are destroyed by rainwater.” Hence, farmers are unable to make decisions on which crops to grow, when to sow and harvest, because of the unpredictability of rainfall.
The declining green cover is also a warning in red, as the forests of Western Ghats, Himalayas, and Northeast are already showing the signs of mortality. “Forest impact is very slowly demonstrated, unlike crops. Our studies show that over 30 percent of the forest area has changed. That means the existing forests in the Himalayas, The Western Ghats, and Northeast will go, and it will take hundreds of years to replenish,” he reveals.
Another key issue is the degradation of our wetlands. Global Wetland Outlook published in 2018, stated that we are losing our wetlands three times faster than forests and that 35 percent of wetlands globally have been lost since 1970. “Ignorance towards wetlands is showing up on the vulnerability of our cities — Chennai, Bangalore, Gurugram are some recent examples. Delhi is a classic example of a city, which has forgotten its rich culture built around wetlands and has become dependent on neighbouring states for its drinking water. Wetlands are also critical for groundwater recharge as well as hydrology of our rivers,” warns Babu.
Not All is Lost
As the IPCC indicated, the world today has 12 years before the fight becomes one-sided. But according to Dr. TS Panwar, Director of Climate Change and Energy at WWF India, there’s a need for manifold actions at “multiple fronts related to policy, technology, finance, capacity building as well as a change in individual lifestyle choices.”
Globally, energy is the largest contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change, and hence replacing fossil-fuel-based energy sources with renewable energy can be an effective means in mitigating climate change. India currently is undergoing this transition. Confirming the same, Bhushan says, “The present government, especially the NITI Aayog, has recognised the potential of renewable energy and battery technology. They have recognised that moving to renewable power and electric mobility is good for the economy and the environment, ” says Bhushan. Even, Panwar sees a successful uptake of renewable energy in recent years that have increased the confidence in India being on track towards reducing carbon emission.
Fight goes on
Despite the encouraging changes, the fight for climate change still needs to gain momentum. Gone are the days when baby boomers like Al Gore or Attenborough were the only individuals who had a voice in environmentalism. Instead, the young generation of millennials and Generation Z represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Thunberg and countless teenagers and kids from the world, respectively, are initiating and dominating the discourse of climate crisis.
Their concern can be best highlighted in what Delhi-based 15-year-old activist Asheer Kandhari says, “The youth of my generation and the next are going to be affected the most. I see myself, my children and grandchildren facing the consequences of the government’s inaction.”
While both Thakur and Kandhari, have written e-mails to various government bodies, the lack of accountability and transparency forced them to raise their voices. “Leaders have to take initiatives to implement many radical policies because climate change will worsen otherwise and reach an irreversible stage in ten years. We only have a few years to do something radical, and stop climate change,” says Thakur, whose City of Lakes has witnessed acute water shortages, depletion of green cover and a significant rise in temperature over a decade.
Although Bhushan warns us that if we leave everything on government, we are not going to solve the problem. “Each one of us will have to take action, whether it is the private sector or the citizens. Climate change is too important to be left to the government. Every one has to come together if we want to solve this crisis,” he concludes....